Coming this summer: New resource for those wanting to conduct Indigenous research 

Artwork by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt

York University has an enduring commitment to the pursuit of knowledge that comes from differing perspectives and ways of knowing. Indigenous knowledges are integral to this. And an expansive guide for those undertaking Indigenous research will help to facilitate these aspirations. The new interactive web-based research tool will be available this summer.

“We have learned from members of the Indigenous Council that when engaging with Indigenous communities, values like humility, respect and truth become front and center,” says Innovation York’s Manager of Knowledge Mobilization Michael Johnny, who co-created this new resource with the Indigenous Council.

Artwork created by Métis (Otipemisiwak) artist Christi Belcourt

“This is a major initiative for the University. It reflects and exemplifies the goals of the Indigenous Council – to help nurture an environment where we all have a stronger sense of connection, inclusion and wellbeing,” said Professor Sean Hillier, Chair of the Indigenous Council. Hillier, a Mi’kmaw scholar from the Qalipu First Nation, is also a special advisor to the dean of health on Indigenous resurgence.

“It is important that, in developing and producing this new resource, the Indigenous Council was fully engaged,” says Vice-President Equity, People and Culture Sheila Cote-Meek. “This new resource echoes broader initiatives within the postsecondary educational system in Canada, including the Principles on Indigenous Education developed by Universities Canada in 2015,” she adds. Cote-Meek is Anishinaabe from the Teme-Augama Anishnabai.

Professor of Indigenous Studies Bonita Lawrence, a Mi’kmaw scholar who focuses on non-status and urban communities, said of this new resource: “This will enable non-Indigenous scholars to learn how to respond to the needs of Indigenous communities – to conduct research with Indigenous people, rather than about them.”

<Caption> Sean Hillier, Sheila Cote-Meek, Bonita Lawrence and Amir Asif
From left: Sean Hillier, Sheila Cote-Meek, Bonita Lawrence and Amir Asif

“I echo Sheila’s point: Engaging with the Indigenous Council was essential. We are all working together in supporting Indigenous-formed and -led research, scholarship and related creative activity. We are creating a unique space to support contributions to Indigenous knowledges within and beyond the academy,” says Vice-President Research & Innovation (VPRI), Amir Asif.

David Phipps, assistant vice-president Research Strategy & Impact, and Innovation York’s Michael Johnny, manager, Knowledge Mobilization, both in VPRI, sat down with Brainstorm to discuss this new resource.

<Caption> David Phipps and Michael Johnny
David Phipps and Michael Johnny

Q: What spurred you to undertake this project?

DP: The Indigenous Framework at York University, released in October 2017, had 10 recommendations. One was about Indigenous research, but the word “staff” didn’t appear – it was all faculty and students, and while that’s not wrong, there was opportunity to find ways for non-academic staff to contribute to the goals of the Indigenous Framework. Being a staff person, I took that to the Associate Vice President of Research, Celia Haig-Brown, a non-Indigenous researcher of Indigeneity, and said: “I want to support it and I think there’s work the staff can do. What can we do?”

We spoke to Special Advisor to the President on Indigeneity Ruth Koleszar-Green, then Chair of the Indigenous Council, and created five workshops, by staff for staff, called “Decolonizing Research Administration.” These were designed to lead research admin staff through an understanding of colonization and decolonization, and ultimately to get staff to reflect on their roles.

Within the workshops, we were able to fund Sean Hillier (School of Health Policy and Management), Chair of the Indigenous Council, to undertake research on the barriers to authentic participation of Indigenous researchers in research at York.

Working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and students, Sean produced a report with eight recommendations. The fifth recommendation was that the Office of Research Services needs to be the “go-to place” for non-Indigenous researchers seeking to engage with Indigenous communities.

Q: Who is/are the audience/users?

MJ: York faculty, grad students and post docs, especially those who are not Indigenous and looking for respectful and meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities.

DP: Also, faculty-based research officers, communications personnel and the Organized Research Units (ORUs).

MJ: This speaks to the research ecosystem at York. For all the offices and individuals who provide service and support, we want to create some baseline awareness and help them to do their jobs better.

Q: Please describe the three parts.

MJ: The first is the primer. What is the history of academic research engagement with Indigenous communities? In some cases, it’s poor and very traumatic. I think it’s important that researchers understand the history.

Also, when engaging with Indigenous communities, values like humility, respect and truth become front and centre. It’s important for researchers to understand that, especially around their own assumptions that they are caring about the communities with which they want to engage. There are also important cultural considerations.

The second part is a resource list – an annotated bibliography that support some of the processes. The resource list is going to be a living document where we continue to add new and emerging resources come to our attention.

DP: The resource list came through the work Michael did over the summer of 2020. He did an environmental scan of up to 20 universities in Canada, looking at how they presented their supports for Indigenous research, identifying strengths and weaknesses of these approaches to inform York’s approach.

Q: And the third component?

MJ: The tool itself. What we’re looking to do is take the best of what we know and make it available for our researchers to give them the greatest chance for success with engagement, with Indigenous partners and with the research itself.

There are specific actionable steps for users to consider. There’s dynamic knowledge mobilization involvement. Tightly aligned to that is impact planning. Our office, as a Knowledge Mobilization Unit, will be available for our researchers as they work through this resource.

DP: To sum up, the primer has interactive elements guiding the user through different stages of preparation for engagement with an Indigenous community. The resource list is the readings, and the tool brings it all together.

Q: When will this be available?

DP: Summer, 2021. It is drafted and has received input from the Indigenous Council and review by some other Canadian university Indigenous research offices. The next step is to engage a designer to turn it into an interactive, web-based offering.

Q: How is this an example of York U as a driving force for positive change?

DP: In the academy, we need to acknowledge that research has left, and is leaving, a legacy of colonization, of trauma and of appropriation. We need to correct that.

There are two ways that we hope this guide will drive positive change: One is on the conduct of research at York. How can we have a positive impact on the conduct of research? By supporting authentic collaboration with Indigenous communities, not recapitulating the trauma and colonization of past and current research experiences.

Secondly, we hope this work will not only drive positive change on campus, but also off campus by co-creating new research evidence that can be used to create positive change for Indigenous communities.

For more on the Office of the Vice-President Equity, People and Culture, visit the website. To read about The Indigenous Framework for York University (2017), see a YFile story about it. To learn more about the Strategic Research Plan, visit the VPRI website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,